Tennent Chapter 6: A Trinitarian Theology of Culture

The Incarnation is, therefore, not only a revelation of God to humanity but also a revelation of humanity to humanity. In Jesus we are learning what it means to be fully human.

The word culture is has very complex meanings, but it is also very widely used. We talk about Western culture as though there was only one and not myriad Western cultures. We are very aware of cross-cultural issues, diversity and multiculturalism.

Despite culture being so prominent in our thoughts, there has been little attention to the idea of a theology of culture.

Niebhur’s Christ and Culture

This is probably the most important book on the subject. For Niebhur culture is:

  • Always social – not concerned with our private lives.
  • A human achievement – the fruit of human effort, not biology
  • A realisation of values.

He saw Christians responding to culture in a number of ways:

  • Christ against culture – a clear dividing line between the two.
  • Christ of Culture – an uncritical accommodation.

Between these two extremes, he placed three mediating positions:

  • Christ above culture – a synthesis position.
  • Christ and culture in paradox – the conflict is not between the Gospel and culture, but between the Gospel and the human heart.
  • Christ the transformer of culture.

We owe a lot to Neibuhr, but his work does not answer all of our questions.

Beyond Christ and Culture

There are four basic problems with Neibhur:

  • His understanding of culture was constructed on a foundation of secular anthropology. However the incarnate Christ cannot be excluded from culture.
  • It assumes a Christendom framework.
  • It assumes a mono-cultural framework and doesn’t work in today’s world.
  • It is not set within an eschatological framework which sees the future as breaking in to the present order.

We need a more biblical analysis of culture.

A Trinitarian View of Culture

The problem is that there are many different definitions of culture, covering everything from pig-farming to Picasso. Developing a Christian view needs to be done carefully.

Anthropological Understandings of Culture

Modern study is often traced back to Herder who pioneered the concept that there are features in societies which cause people to belong. For Herder, this was primarily tied to national identity.

British anthropologist Tylor published an important work in 1871; Primitive Culture:

  • Culture is a universal of human communities.
  • Cultures are differentiated from one another.
  • Every culture is dynamic, adaptive and changing.

This is still the basis of much modern anthropological understanding.

Christian anthropologists have tended to use this sort of thing as the basis for their understanding of culture. Heibert defines culture as:

“the more or less integrated system of ideas, feelings, and values and their associated patterns of behaviour and products shared by a group of people who organize and regulate what they think, feel and do.”

However, while acknowledging the value of this sort of thing, there are issues which need to be addressed.

Christian Perspectives on Culture

First: Christians affirm that God is the source and sustainer of both physical and social culture.

“By virtue of his triune reality, God is inherently relational, and human relationships, endowed by Him at creation, represent a reflection of His presence in creation itself.”

Because the discipline of anthropology works in a closed system, the reality of God is generally denied.

Second: Christians affirm the objective reality of sin.

For anthropologists, the notion of sin is a social construct, not an eternal reality with significant personal and cosmic implications.

Third: Christians affirm that God has revealed Himself within the context of human culture.

Christian revelation has both an objective and subjective reality. Revelation comes from God, but comes to us in a particular context and situation.

Fourth: Christians affirm that a future eschatological culture, known as the New Creation has already broken into the present.

These four realities of God, sin, revelation and New Creation all have dramatic implications for the formulation of a Christian anthropology. It is doubtful whether we can actually work from the basis of the secular viewpoint. The development of a Christian view of culture will require that the Triune God and the missio Dei be kept front and centre.

A Trinitarian Framework for Forming a Theology of Culture

“It is the presupposition of this book that we cannot properly understand the larger cosmos or the particular cultural realities in which we find ourselves apart from the triune God. The Trinity is not merely a metaphysical puzzle that concerns a few erudite theologians; it is the lens through which reality is finally understood and exposed. Ultimately all reality is rooted in and flows forth from God Himself, even as Paul affirmed when he said “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)”

The problem is that our primary frame of reference for the Trinity has been the ecumenical councils which were concerned about addressing contemporary theological challenges.

The Father as the Source, Redeemer and Final Goal of Culture

The biblical witness is framed between the creation of the heavens and earth and the account of the new heaven and earth. All developments in human life happen within this frame and are extensions of the original creation.

God is not an outsider, he is the originator of human culture. Because of sin, creation is groaning, waiting for its liberation. God has taken the initiative to deal with this problem; through Israel and the Messiah.

The world is ultimately validated in the New Creation

The Son’s Embodiment in Human Culture

The orthodox Christian view of a union of divine and human natures into one person has a profound impact on our view of culture.

  • God validates the sanctity of human culture

“There is no generic incarnation. Jesus entered the history and culture of a particular group at a particular time. Jesus learned and spoke the languages of His time, and He fully entered into all the particularities of the Jewish culture in which He grew up. Jesus ate the same food as His contemporaries. He attended a wedding. He laughed and cried. He did not just walk on the vague sands of time; He walked on the real sands by the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is not like the passing, ephemeral avatars of Hinduism. Jesus fully steps into our history and becomes God the Father’s supreme example of what it means to be fully human, to live in history and to participate in culture. The life of Jesus models for all cultures what it means to fully realize our true humanity. The Incarnation is, therefore, not only a revelation of God to humanity but also a revelation of humanity to humanity. In Jesus we are learning what it means to be fully human.”

  • Jesus of Nazareth provides the basis for cultural critique

“Every culture manifests examples of human alienation from God and antagonism towards His divine rule. The Holocaust, the atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Buddhist Cambodia, the horrific ethnic genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans, and the acts of Islamic terrorism on 9/11 all provide ample testimony to the depth of evil in the world. However, the failure of culture lies not just in these examples of horrific evil, which from time to time are paraded across our television sets. There is an even deeper malady whereby cultural systems conspire to promote the commercialization of life, the disenfranchisement of the poor and the oppressed and the cynical replacement of eternal values with the commoditization of modern existence.”

Secular anthropology is incapable of recognising the cultural significance of human and satanic rebellion against God.

The Holy Spirit as the Agent of the New Creation

Because secular anthropology exists in a closed system, it envisages change as a process which never ends and which leads nowhere.

However, Jesus Christ has inaugurated the eschaton and the New Creation has broken into the current order. At Pentecost the Spirit came as the agent of the New Creation.

New Creation Model of Culture

Review and Critique of Other Models

  • Culture-A Encounters Culture-B

This sees a missionary encounter as one between two human cultures. A missionary from the US in Senegal; the missionary is encouraged to become as much a cultural insider as possible.

  • Three Culture Approach

The missionary culture, receptor culture and biblical culture.

  • Gospel Beyond All Cuture

This plays down the importance of human cultures altogether.

A Critique of these Approaches

Each of these is built around a truth, but is limited. The first never offers anything more than a secular textbook. There are valid observations, but Christianity brings nothing to it.

The second model ignore the problems of both cultures and seems to think about people relating purely as individuals, not as communities.

The gospel-beyond culture approach ignores the reality and implications of the incarnation.

Key Features of A New Creation Model.

  • As Christians our primary cultural identity is in the New Creation
  • Ultimate meaning can only be found in the triune God
  • The church is the corporate, community witness to every culture
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